Corner market in San Francisco's Duboce TriangleIn our home we are always making changes to the way we do things. It is not that we bore easily, there just seem to be too many good improvements to try that my wife Min and I always seem to have a project or two at any given time. We are currently overhauling our food supply chain. All but a few of our meals begin with raw vegetables, fruits, grains and animals, so we had been lulled into thinking that we were doing all that was needed to ensure the good health we aspire to maintain. The signals that change was needed began appearing gradually, but like many of the recent choices we have made, did not come into focus until my exploration into sustainability subject matter revealed some glaring disconnects between what I knew in principle and what we did in practice.

Typically, cost was the main driver (and frequently the only) in our choices. We generally viewed organic items as unneeded luxuries, though this stemmed mostly from not having a very thorough understanding of what the certification meant. All other things equal, we chose locally grown or raised items over imports, though this was more out of a desire to support our local economy than a deep understanding of the often very long route our food takes to come to us.

In June 2009 we saw one of the early screenings of Food, Inc. a documentary film that dove into the industrialization of our food production and its effects on the health of the product, planet and ourselves. While our ears perked up and we did make a few changes (particularly around reducing the amount of meat we ate and considering the source of that which we did), things remained fundamentally the same. I have seen enough Michael Moore documentaries to know that in a two hour film one can cobble together enough anecdotal evidence and one-sided data to portray anything in just about any light. We appreciated being made aware of the issues, but considering that many of the processed foods the movie targeted had long been absent from our diets we did not feel the burning need to embark on hard self-assessment at that time.

At the beginning of the current summer our good friend Christa mentioned that she had joined a community supported agriculture (CSA) group, in which she paid into a pool directly supporting the operations of local farmers, in return for weekly deliveries of food. She recently wrote a blog post to report on the fun of receiving a box full of crispy green goodness, some of which she would likely not have considered choosing when shopping in a store. Supporters share the risk of farming operations, so assume the chance of less than optimal production due to weather or other factors. I was excited to learn about her experience with this, and due to my recent readings on the carbon emissions embedded in supply chains had a greater appreciation for buying from local producers, but Min and I were reluctant to give up the convenience of à la carte shopping via farmers markets (which at least, by definition are locally sourced) and retail grocery stores (which frequently source products from as far afield as the other side of the planet).

What changed? While these data points were churning over somewhere in my mind, I came across a few other sources of information that really hammered home the need to take a long, hard look at what we were doing. I just finished reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce, in which a central tenet is the concept that the “cheap” sticker price of an item often does not reflect the true cost, were one to consider the collateral effect on the environment, health and culture that the production processes have. Midway though reading the book, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) issued its 2010 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides, which tested fifty commonly found produce items to determine which had the highest levels of residual chemicals after washing. Coupled with a few other contemporary reports, the whole picture became more clear and complete.

Though somewhat oversimplified, the situation appeared to be as follows. The retail price of food can be made very cheap by 1) planting large monoculture fields (most conventional farms) which gradually deplete the nutritive value of topsoil, 2) using petroleum and other chemical based pesticides and herbicides (to kill weeds, and which requires genetically modified, herbicide resistant varieties of the plant) that increase the salinization of the soil, leech into groundwater and remain in significant concentrations on the food we buy, and 3) paying workers less than a living wage for performing back-breaking and sometimes dangerous work.

Each passing day I became more aware of the extent to which my buying decisions were not consistent with my views on sustainability. The fact that I had gently ignored most of the warnings for as long as I did was not very satisfying, either. The fact that many of the chemicals Min and I were ingesting on a regular basis are classified as immunotoxicants, reproductive toxicants or carcinogens was just plain revolting. I am now paying attention.

This is no one silver-bullet solution to all of these problems, but there are options. I am a big fan of options.

"Salsa, Decomposed"When shopping for fruits and vegetables, avoiding large amounts of retained chemical pesticides and herbicides can be accomplished by either buying organic foods or substituting cleaner conventional options for some of the most chemical laden produce (what EWG termed “The Dirty Dozen”). The worst offenders include celery, strawberries, blueberries and leafy greens. The catch is that organics are almost always priced at a premium to their conventional counterparts, thus would appear to discriminate on the basis of buyer income. In an idea world, companies would be rewarded for the most sustainable production processes and penalized for those that deplete natural resources and harm health, thus organic food would become cost competitive and the preferred choice for all consumers. While we are working on getting there, EWG stresses that a diet of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables is always better than a diet lacking these wholesome items.

Buying from local farmers markets or joining a CSA ensures that the food has not traveled an undue distance to arrive in your kitchen, burning transportation fuel and losing freshness and nutrients in the process. In some cases, these smaller farms may employ organic practices, such as natural fertilizer and integrated pest control, but due to their size have chosen not to seek organic certification (due to associated fees and documentation burden). Some farms operate greenhouses and supply food through the winter, or at least into the shoulder months.

There is, as of yet, no standard or certification to measure the way an employer treats its workers, but as institutional food service provider Bon Appétit has discovered, you can learn a good deal just by visiting the farms from which you source food. In some cases, you can even speak directly with field hands to get an idea of what they feel about their working environment.

For our part, we have made the shift to buying organic for the foods in EWG’s Dirty Dozen. In the supermarket we scrutinize food labels much more closely, particularly noting farm of origin when available. Since summer arrived we resumed patronage of our area farmers markets. We have even learned of a network of urban farming (small plots grown on city lots) in and around Newark that we are in the process of locating. Long term, we aim to increase the proportion of our purchases that are both local and organic.

This project started out of a desire to help ourselves though safeguarding our health. Knowledge (or more appropriately, acknowledgement) of the other benefits of choosing sustainably produced food came later through research. It seems kind of self-centered when you look at it that way. But consider all of the other environment and culture preserving measures we endeavor to bring to fruition, like reducing pollution, preventing island and low lying coastal nations from disappearing, and securing human rights. These things are not meant to save the planet. We may have the capacity to degrade our environment beyond the point where we can live in it, but the Earth will still be here. We do these things because we value our own existence. I realize that buying organically grown spinach from a farm in New York is not going to be the salvation of mankind, but it’s a start.